Okay, so I know I haven't exactly...been here for the last couple of...well, more than a couple of week...maybe a month? I'm not sure. The reason for that is because I've been having a bit of an identity crisis lately, and life decided to catch up with me in the middle of said crisis, and...well, everything went to hell. But I'm okay now, I think, and I'm posting something I've been working on and off on for the past week or two. It is a continuation of sorts of a story I wrote not so long ago called "Fire Lake", I suggest you read that first. It is called The Final Summoning and is a fantasy tale. Robotics is still at the top of my priority list, so no worries there. I'm afraid I'm going to put "Kane's Folly" on hiatus for a while until I can get my act together properly. Anyway, this is the end of my author's note. Please read (and hopefully enjoy) this story...and perhaps leave me a tiny review?
"Which is…which is—Master Venoz, are you paying attention?"
The stern voice woke him up. He gritted his teeth as he realised he had fallen asleep…again. He slowly raised his head to look at his tutor.
His face had more wrinkles than a raisin, and his gigantic, thick spectacles made his eyes look like an owl's. Long, grey hair cascaded from the top of his head, a testament to the old wizard's once golden locks. His nose was bent entirely out of shape, looking more like a large, red potato, the result of having it broken one too many times by the ferocious warrior people of the east. All this made the old man look like he'd seen far too many winters. But then again, it fitted old Mefe.
"I'm sorry, Mefe," said the young master shamefully. "It's just so hot today. I can't concentrate on the studies."
"That is the oldest excuse in the book, Master Venoz, and also the poorest. I know that this classroom is very well ventilated and cool as it is one of my top priorities to have a good teaching environment for my pupils. Believe me, I know when it's hot, and this is nothing." Mefe took hold of his book again. "I believe I shall have to start over again since I have lost my place. Now, I want you to pay attention, for I will not let you leave until you have memorised this passage perfectly."
The young master Venoz sighed and looked about the small classroom, desperate for something that could keep him awake. Rows upon rows of wooden desks were lined up on the floor, though only Mefe and the young master occupied the room. Old maps hung on the walls, detailing massive military conquests and explorations across the world. The windows lining one side of the room showed a beautiful blue sky and perfectly white clouds drifting about lazily. How he envied them.
Mefe was writing something on the blackboard. "I can see you have no interest in education today, Master Venoz, so I believe I shall put an end to this lecture right now. However, I still want you to learn these phrases for tomorrow."
Venoz looked at Mefe, his eyebrow raised in suspicion. "Wait, when did you become nice? You never let me leave a lecture early."
Mefe's face lit up in amusement. "While I do think it is important for our kingdom's very last Summoner to have the necessary knowledge and skills to combat evil, I also think it is a beastly act to deprive him of the pleasure of the harvest festival, don't you?" He walked over to the windows, beckoning the young master to join him. The classroom was located in one of the highest spires of the castle, giving them a prime view of the massive city. Mefe pointed down at a procession of carts that was making its way through the busy streets. "I do believe the carnival has arrived."
Venoz wanted so badly to go down there, but the king might not approve, especially after the previous year's stunt where Venoz had disappeared for the entire day, mingling with the common folk and having the time of his life. When Mefe had found him in an alley, throwing up because of too many sweets, he had been sure he had sung his swan song. Venoz looked at Mefe.
"Are you really going to let me go?" he asked.
Mefe looked around the classroom for a second and then turned back to face him. "Well, I am not going to let you leave, but let us just say that an old man has a tendency to fall asleep at the most inopportune times. I don't know how you will avoid the guards, but neither do I care. If you want to go to the festival, you will have to get there on your own. Now, I will stay here and read up on some legends that I will question you on tomorrow." He walked to his desk and sat down. He pulled out a large volume of the kingdom's collected history. "I always found the myth about the gods' disappearances a really good read, a small hint for you, Master Venoz." With that said, he buried his face in the book.
Venoz remained at the windows, unsure if Mefe was being serious. If the king found out that the old man had purposely let the Summoner leave the castle, he would be in serious trouble. Venoz could never forgive himself if something like that happened. He looked outside again, watching as the tiny, ant-like people below unloaded colourful tents from the carts and raised them in one of the many squares of the city, much to the delight of the small children gathered around them.
Mefe cleared his throat. "Master, if you don't leave the classroom this instant, I will be forced to throw you out the window." Venoz was out of the door within seconds, running as fast as his legs could take him. Mefe grinned and read the story of the Father's origin – his favourite – again. "Ah, to be alive in such times," he whispered.
The coast was clear. He stood behind a large marble pillar in the great hall, the place where the king greeted visiting delegates. The floor was also of marble, and a long, red carpet stretched all the way from the entrance to the gateway to the rest of the castle. Two pairs of guards patrolled the great hall, though the endless hours of watching and walking up and down what was essentially just a very large corridor tired them easily. It was easy for him to just run from pillar to pillar, hiding whenever a pair of guards walked past, the daylight shining through the large windows providing lots of shadows he could hide in.
Venoz had many times thought about telling the commander how easy it was to sneak past them, but that would also leave him one exit short of leaving the castle. Besides, any spy that managed to sneak past the great hall would find themselves facing the combined might of the castle guards waiting in the courtyard beyond.
He could already see the gates to the streets beyond, just a couple hundred feet away. He looked up and down the hall and saw that he guards were all at the other end. If he was fast enough, they wouldn't notice him. He sprang from his hiding spot and raced to the gates, bursting out into the daylight. His boots hit gravel as he ran across the small courtyard just before the gates. He threw himself behind some barrels containing grain and observed the heavy patrols that marched past the gates once every ten minutes. A pair ceremonial guards, clad in their best armour, white and silver, stood on the other side of the gates, the sun reflecting off their outfits. They even had plumes in their helmets. Venoz had never understood the point of them.
The heavy patrol disappeared behind the barracks, marching along the mighty wall. Venoz knew that this was his chance and took off running towards the gates. The great gates truly earned their names. They were solid iron, capable of taking the strongest of hits without bending, and so richly decorated that they seemed more like the gates to heaven. Judging by the kingdom's longevity and reputation, they might as well have been. The first set of bars was easy to squeeze through, his thin frame slipping between them. The other set proved a problem, but he had already figured out how he would get past them – and the guard.
Standing directly behind the guard, he kept quiet. The ceremonially equipped guard to the right relaxed his stance slightly and nodded at his plumed partner, who went away, his steps clanking on the cobblestones. He sighed and kept looking forward. "Going out again, Khris?"
Venoz nodded, feeling foolish when he realised the guard could not see him. "Yeah, Mefe fell asleep again," he answered, keeping to the not-so-clever lie. "Come on, Maes, let me out."
Maes turned around, looking imposing in his armour. He hefted his spear to get a better grip and looked down at the thirteen year-old. "And why, pray tell, should I do that?"
Venoz frowned. "Because the harvest festival is today."
"And it will be tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow and the day after that again," said Maes. "Why do you always have to choose to go out on the days I'm on duty here?"
Venoz grinned at the man. "Because I know you will let me out."
Maes sighed again and took out his keys for the small door on the side of the gates the guards used. "I'm too nice, that's my problem," he mumbled. The lock clicked and the grated door swung open. Venoz stepped through. "Now," Maes began, "I don't know how the honoured Summoner wants to look today, but might I suggest getting another cloak if you want to be inconspicuous?"
Venoz looked at the cloak he'd hastily wrapped around himself despite it being in the middle of the summer. It was decorated with flowers and stars. He grimaced. "Must've picked the wrong one," he said.
Maes laughed. "Sure you did. Wait here a second," he said and disappeared into the small booth they were allowed to stand in if a sudden downpour threatened to flush away everything in the streets. Venoz could hear him rummaging around.
Venoz looked at the other plumed guard, who was trying his best not to look at him. "What's wrong?"
The guard stiffened. "Nothing, honourable Summoner, I was just…"
"He's just nervous about talking to you, Khris," finished Maes and handed Venoz a brown cloak. "Here, it's my old one. I always keep it around in case a small spell of rain decides to fall and we're not allowed to use the booths. In fact," he said and looked upwards to the sky. "It looks like there's going to be a small shower soon."
"Thank you, Maes," said Khris and put the cloak on, depositing his other one in Maes' waiting hand. "Can you hide that for me?"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever, Summoner. Listen, be back before five, yeah? That way I can get you back inside before the change of guards. If you're caught outside again, I don't know what the king will do."
"Of course, Maes," said Khris. "I cannot thank you enough."
"Just don't get me in trouble and you can do whatever the hell you want," replied Maes. "Now, get going before the patrol sees you—"
"Sinar! What are you doing, talking to that beggar?" asked a booming voice from the other side of the gates. "Get back to your post!"
Maes glared at the unseen man and pushed Khris away. "Get away from me, filthy beggar!" he snarled. Khris walked away, blending into the crowd, but not before catching a wink from Maes and returning it.
It was a relief to be outside again, among real people. The atmosphere and formality inside the castle stifled him, but walking in the streets always made him feel…free. He didn't know what he'd do without Maes. Khris had befriended the soldier when he was eight years old, first meeting him during an official ceremony. He had been so bored, looking and nodding at the delegates who filed by them in a line.
Maes had been just as bored apparently, for he was whispering jokes to the guard next to him. When Maes had problems controlling his voice during one of the jokes, Khris had heard it and almost started to giggle. Maes had noticed and kept trying to make him laugh. It was hard to be respectful and welcoming to delegates when your sides feel like they are about to split from held-in laughter. The king and his sons had not been as amused by the Summoner's giggles. He was given a stern talking to that evening, but that did not deter him from seeking out the guard who made him laugh and hear more jokes.
Khris was shaken out of his thoughts when someone ran into him, nearly knocking him over a couple of barrels. The rude passerby kept walking, not even bothering to apologise. Khris looked at the disappearing back and shrugged. How rude people could be. He continued on his way, wanting to see the carnival people arrange their booths and prepare for a night of festivities. The streets were busy, teeming with life as people hurried back and forth, watching the preparations.
The stone buildings in this part of the city were richly decorated with swirls and intricate patterns. Some were even carrying the visages of the Father, the god king of the pantheon. Khris shook his head to banish the theories that were already forming in his head. Today was meant for fun, even though he knew that hell awaited him if he was caught. All he had to do was to make sure he was back before dark. He was to make an appearance with the king and his sons on the balcony overlooking the parade ground, waving to the people to show that they were enjoying the festival as well. How they were supposed to do that in the castle he had no idea. The king usually went to bed early these days, a sign of his age. The king had supposedly been old when Maes was a kid, so who knew how old he was now?
He reached Monir Square, the biggest in the city. It was no wonder the carnival always decided to set up there, it was so beautiful. The square was located where the four main streets in the city met, which brought many merchants and other shopkeepers there to set up booths of their own, always looking for new places to earn more money. Many children liked to play on the grassy patch where some kind of goal had been set up, the kids playing a game where the point was apparently to tackle the one with the ball as hard as possible. The smaller children kept to the side with their own games while the older played the violent one, understandable.
A dozen trees stood in the middle of the square. Large oaks, apparently planted over a century ago. They had grown so large that they provided shade for over half of the square, shielding the people from the summer sun, only beginning to show signs of surrendering its warmth to the coming autumn showers.
It was a glorious day, and Khris could not have been happier. He was out of the stuffy castle, he didn't have a troublesome guard detail surrounding him and he had stuffed his pockets with coins on his way out, ready to spend them. He only hoped no one would recognise him, which was where the cloak would come in handy. If anyone saw who he was, he would run into a crowd, blend in and disappear into an alley with his hood on. He needed to thank Maes again when he got back, he decided.
He sat down on one of the only unoccupied stone benches, just watching the life around him. The sun was warm on his back, soon making him take off the cloak. He brushed his golden hair out of his eyes, annoyed at its length. A scream made him look to his right. A man had dropped a heavy crate on another's toes, the stricken man hopping up and down while shouting angrily at the dropper, who looked embarrassed. Khris smiled and turned to observe the violent ball game. Some of the kids, the smaller, weaker-looking ones had bruises on their faces, and one of them was even bleeding from his nose. Khris shuddered. He hated blood, and the sight of it usually made him nauseous.
He sat there for an hour and looked at the activity. The sun was high in the sky, and he had many hours left until dark, if it ever came. He remembered that he would have to leave once it disappeared behind the church tower. He looked up at the castle tower he'd been cooped up in most of the morning, wondering if he could see Mefe. It was too high and far away to see anything.
"Hey, put that down you thief!" someone shouted angrily from one of the stands. A burly man ran away from it, carrying something under his arm. A pair of guards at one of the street entrances gave chase, their amour clanking. The burly man ran by Khris' bench. Instinctively, Khris stuck out a leg, tripping the man. The man skidded on the tiled ground, dropping the item he was carrying. It was wrapped in cloth, but Khris could make out the general shape. It was a short sword or dagger of some kind. The man tried to stand up, but the guards were on him in an instant, pulling him up by the scruff of his neck and tugging him away.
One of the guards smiled at Khris. "Nice work, kid," he said and focused on getting the protesting man away from the festivities. Khris sighed, relieved that the man hadn't recognised him. Not many people had seen the Summoner up close, but Khris usually got the short end of the straw. He looked around and saw appraising looks, nods and smiles. None of them recognised him. The shopkeeper who had shouted came and picked up the package. He smiled down at Khris.
"Thank you, this is one of my most expensive items, and to lose it to a thief would kill me. Here." He held out a couple of coins, not knowing that the youth had far more money than he could ever dream of. Khris took them anyway and thanked the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper smiled and walked back to his booth.
Khris was lost in his thoughts while looking at the carnival people pitching the biggest tent. He jumped a bit when someone suddenly sat down next to him on the bench. It was hard to make out the person in his peripheral vision, so he made quick, careful glances to his right. The person – a man, he noted – was wearing a long, brown leather cloak over a chainmail shirt. He wore iron greaves covered in notches, a hint of battles past. His large, brown boots were caked in mud, suggesting that he had travelled through the wetlands to the north. He was wearing a hat, wide-brimmed with a long, colourful feather sticking out of the top. A sword, thin and long, hung on his back. It didn't look like anything made in the kingdom. Khris couldn't make out his face no matter how many times he tried looking at it and gave up.
"You done eyeballin' me, kid?" asked the man suddenly, his voice rough like gravel. "I'm warning you, I don't swing that way. Besides, you're a bit young, don't you think?"
Khris was red in the face when he turned fully to the stranger and glared at him. "I was not 'eyeballing' you. I was just looking back and forth in order to ascertain your ugliness, which I just did," he said. The man's face was covered in scars, and one that went along the rim of his left eye seemed to radiate bitterness. It looked as if someone had tried to carve the eye out, but he'd interrupted them mid-way. He wore his long, brown hair in a ponytail that trailed down his back. His eyes were clear-blue, a rare colour around those parts. His nose was broad and flat, looking like it had been squeezed in. "And I do not 'swing that way' either," Khris added, not completely sure of what he meant, but it sounded like an insult.
The man grinned, his pearly white teeth a contrast to his ruined face. "Is that so? Then I suppose you swing the other way, then?"
Khris glared again. "Shut up."
The man grinned and fingered the handle of his sword. It was richly decorated with charging horses and armed men with spears. "Tut-tut, such language. It's not polite to speak to grownups that way, you know."
"Judging by your banter so far, you don't seem like one," retorted Khris.
The man's grin grew even wider. He turned completely to Khris and held out a hand. "I like you, kid, you've got spunk. The name's Verg."
Khris took it tentatively and shook it, his mind scrambling to come up with a name. "Maes," he replied.
Verg looked at the preparations around him. "Some festival. I've travelled all over the place, and I've only ever seen people make such a big deal of it here, nowhere else. Well, there was that one farming community east of The Bog, but I guess that was just a mild case of lunacy…" he trailed off when he saw Khris staring at him. "Uh, do I have something in my teeth?" he asked.
"You're a travelling warrior?" Khris asked, his eyes shining. Mefe had told him of the hired swords, people who travel the world to fight evil in all its forms. Mefe had also told him that they were a dying breed; that no one wanted to fight anymore. Mefe had actually been one himself at one point in his life before he settled down in the kingdom. Khris always pressured him into telling stories about his previous life, but he always refused, saying that he'd rather not remember. But now he could ask another about his life.
"Now why the hell would you think that?" asked Verg, shaking his head.
"It's just…you said you've been travelling, and your scars—"
"The results of a disease I had when I was younger. Large boils and nasty rashes, never completely healed," said Verg, feeling his face.
Khris was not done. "Those scars couldn't have come from boils. Those are definitely slices, and those are—"
"Okay, fine!" growled Verg. "My father was a sadistic bastard who couldn't find any other entertainment than mutilating his son! The bastard even tried taking my eye once, as you can see," he said and pointed at his eye.
"But…your sword," said Khris meekly, feeling foolish.
"This?" asked Verg and held up the slim blade. "This is just something I'm delivering for a friend here. That's what I do; I deliver stuff."
"Sorry," mumbled Khris.
Verg smiled and brushed his hand at the air. "Don't worry, lots of people make that mistake. I've gotten used to it by now. Anyway, I must be off," he said and stood up. "It was nice to talk to you, Maes; most city people wouldn't spare me a glance. Maybe I'll see you around."
Khris nodded. "Maybe."
Verg turned to leave, but halted after the first step. He turned back and looked at Khris. "A piece of advice, Summoner. If you don't wish to be recognised and discovered, stick to less public places." And with that, he was off, leaving a shocked Khris Venoz still sitting on the bench. Verg grinned. "So worth it."
He continued walking, passing by many stands and booths, feeling tempted to use some of the jingling coins hidden on his person to buy something, but decided against it when he remembered just how little coin he actually had left. "First things first," he mumbled and headed for the smithies, cutting through several alleys in the process. He noticed an abnormal amount of street urchins following a man who carried some kind of flute, but shrugged and continued on his way. "No sense in getting involved with that bag of rats."
Emerging from the darkened space between the buildings, he stepped on to the black-stained stones of the district belonging to the blacksmiths. Instead of spreading their foul smoke and ash all over the city, they had massed together in what became known as the industrial sector, leaving a permanent smoke and the taste of metal in the air. Verg really hoped no one lived here.
Passing smithy upon smithy, he smiled to every burly man who carried hammers and anvils, making sure that he kept a steady pace. He had angered a blacksmith once, and that was something he'd rather not repeat. Suffice to say, being chased by a man who easily break you in half is not very desirable. He walked for a couple of minutes before he saw a sign and smiled. The familiar arrow embedded into a rump couldn't be mistaken, and Verg walked up the tiny set of stairs to the door. Seeing a small sign saying "knock", he shrugged and opened the door, stepping inside.
The air was dusty and stale, proving once again that his old friend couldn't be bothered about cleaning out his shop every once in a while. Verg smiled, relishing in the feelings of familiarity and home. There was the ancient counter, pockmarked with holes where various weapons had been dug into it and covered in bumps where Verg had sometimes been forced to calm down an unruly customer. The wall behind the counter was filled with weapons of every type and form. Demonic-looking swords with leering faces. Elegant, thin blades like the one he had on his back right now. A cough from his right turned his attention to Minst, the keeper of the shop.
"Hello, Minst, and how are you on this beautiful Harvest Festival's day?" asked Verg, knowing fully well that his friend hated conversations that began like that.
The stiff face of Minst twitched in annoyance, and the steely, ice-cold blue eyes looked up at Verg. "Say one more word about this bloody festival and I'll have yer head," he said and stood up, his short frame shrinking even further when he walked behind the counter. A creaking noise was heard, and Minst suddenly grew a couple of feet, aided by the step-stool he kept behind it. "If one more nobleman comes in here asking for one of my eastern items to hang on his mantelpiece…" He left the sentence hanging in the air. He noticed the sword on Verg's back. "How did it serve you, then?" he asked.
Verg's smile slipped from his face, and the scarred man walked over to the counter, slamming the scabbard on top of it. Something clanged inside. "Shitty," he said and pulled on the sword's handle, coming away with half the blade. "It broke on the first parry. I was lucky to be able to stab the bastard in the side before he rammed his two-hander into my skull. I told you, I'm done with these blades, they're useless!"
Minst's face twitched again. "They are not useless, you barbarian, they are perfect! If only you would stop bashing away at steel with them you'd realise that."
Verg brushed him off with a sigh. "I don't care, Minst, just tell me: is my sword ready yet?"
"It won't be ready until tonight. I've still got some work to do on it," said Minst, looking at the door leading to his backroom. "It's in there if you want to make sure I'm not ruining it with my 'eastern crap'."
Verg took off his extravagant hat, straightening the feather. "Nah, I think I'll pass. I know that you know better than to try some fancy stuff with it. I want it to cut; I want it to break; that is all."
"Yeah, well, it's gonna cost a bit more than I originally estimated. It's gonna be about a hundred and—"
Lightning-fast, Verg had slipped out a dagger, reached over behind Minst's head and pulled him forward, bringing his throat barely an inch away from the blade. "And here I thought we still did that friends-discount thing, Minst," said Verg. "After all these years of getting rid of difficult customers for you."
Minst didn't even seem to notice the blade and narrowed his eyes. Just as fast as Verg, he grabbed the other man's wrist and pinned the dagger hand to the table, reaching under the counter in the process. He pulled out a small throwing-axe, holding it threateningly over the appendage. "I revoked it over a year ago," said Minst and grinned. "Now, are you going to stop threatening me whenever I don't give you what you want for free so I won't have to cut off your hand?"
They stood in silence, both forms completely frozen. A smile cracked the façade of Verg's face and they both started laughing.
"You were the first one," said Minst, putting away the axe, wiping tears from his eyes. "I guess I win…again."
Verg put his dagger away. "Just you wait, you midget, I'll get you sometime."
"Sure you will, sure you will," said Minst. He reached under the counter again and pulled out a map of the city. "Lock the door, please," he told Verg, who obediently did so. "Now," he said, "shall we talk business?"
"Yes, let's," said Verg and pulled the chair Minst had been sitting on up to the counter. "How many are involved in this?"
"There will be five of you. You, Phil, Yarik, Kolm and Maes."
"Heh, funny," mumbled Verg, making Minst look up.
"Just that I met the Summoner in one of the squares. He tried going under the pseudonym of Maes."
Minst furrowed his brow, his dislike of the last Summoner evident "That brat doesn't know what's good for him, venturing out alone like that. Anyway, as I said—"
"Wait," interrupted Verg, "who's Kolm and Maes, exactly?" He knew Phil and Yarik, but the last two he hadn't even heard about.
"Well, Maes is a guard at the castle who has so graciously agreed to help you, and Kolm is an assassin who has—"
"I don't work with assassins. They're just a bunch of killers."
"Who also face the same difficulties you usually do, especially that of economic troubles. This is the only team I was able to assemble at such short notice, and you'll bloody well accept it!" Minst was brandishing his axe again, his look leaving no room for discussion. "Besides, he hasn't killed anyone yet. He's still an apprentice."
"You're kidding, right? You're not going to send a damn kid in with us, are you?" Verg could feel his patience shrinking.
"How did you know he was a—"
"Assassins are required to take a test to ascend to a higher grade than apprentice when they turn sixteen or they're killed off to make sure that no one divulges any secrets in their rage of being rejected," said Verg and leaned back in his chair, giving Minst a look that conveyed his hatred for assassins quite effectively.
Minst raised an eyebrow. "How do you know that if no one's allowed to blabber about it on the outside?"
"I have my ways," said Verg. "I've got a particular effective way of…extracting information when I'm determined."
"You've tortured assassins, haven't you?"
"Not anymore than they deserved. They were sent after me, which I interpret as a sign of goodwill and permission from the guild to do whatever I want with them."
"Apart from letting them kill you, of course."
"Naturally. Are we going to go over the plan now, or are we waiting for the grass to grow?"
This is even better than last time! was the thought that echoed through Khris' mind as he walked along the streets, stopping at various vendors and merchants to see what they had. They had everything from trinkets no one knew what did from the desert nations in the south to barbarian weapons from the north to supposedly "magic" potions and sand from the mysterious Magi in the east.
Khris had to laugh at the fake magicians and wizards entertaining on their platforms by colouring cloth and pulling pigeons and other small animals from hats. If any of them ever saw true magic like the one Mefe practiced, they'd feel so foolish…
Stopping at a booth selling some kind of sweet pastry, he bought a big, twisty thing the vendor called a pretzel, which Khris happily ate as he continued on his way. It was delicious, and it didn't take him long to down the whole thing. He thought about going back for another one, but remembered that there was to be a large feast later that night in the castle, and spoiling his appetite with pretzels would just not do. The king had always been adamant that his guests ate everything on their plates. If they didn't, he considered it a grave insult to his kitchen and himself.
He eventually reached the end of the little side-street he had gone down, following Verg's advice. For some reason, he doubted that the man had wanted harm to come to him, and he really didn't think that Verg was waiting around the corner, preparing to grab him by the throat and drag him away. He checked his corners just to be sure, though. Seeing that there wasn't anything particularly interesting in the street, he turned around and made his up the street again, wondering what time it was.
His question was answered by the loud tolling of the church bells, the shrill clanging penetrating his very marrow. He had never enjoyed the sound of bells, something he had never quite understood. He listened, counting. One…two…three…four…four? Oh no, I'm late!
He had never run as fast as he did when he realised that he was to be in the king's court at a quarter to five. He ran up and down the streets like some beast from the mountains was on his tail. He almost crashed into a stall where a fat little man was proclaiming that every other merchant in the city were overpricing their items. The merchant fell of the counter, cursing loudly. Khris didn't even look back. By the time he reached the square he had met Verg in his legs were in searing pain and his breath came in such short gasps that he had a feeling he'd faint if he didn't slow down. He ignored the instinct telling him to do so and dug deep to find that extra burst of energy that would last him to the city gates. He just hoped Maes was still on duty, or getting into the castle would prove very tricky.
Coming to an almost screeching halt outside the gates, he gasped in relief when he saw the familiar bearded face of Maes as he took off his helmet for a second to wipe sweat from his brow. The ornate armour was not only ugly as sin, in Maes' opinion, but hot as hell too. He noticed the Summoner and waved him over, looking critically at him through the bars.
"You like living dangerously, don't you?" he asked. "Do you know what time it is? There's barely ten minutes until inspection. Now get in here!" He hastily opened the gate, nodding at his plumed partner to keep as quiet he could.
"I'm sorry, Maes, I forgot the time, and—"
"Yeah, yeah, don't want to hear it. Just take your cloak and get back inside before someone sees you. I have it on good authority that Mefe is looking for you."
"What?" asked Khris. "He said I could go…well, not really, but he fell asleep."
"Yeah, and one of the princes found out," said Maes, shaking his head.
Khris froze. One of the princes knew he was gone? "Which one?" he asked, hoping that it wasn't Fabian, the first-born son of the king. There was a rumour going through that city that he was a ruthless barbarian of a man, but Khris, who lived in the castle, knew that his behaviour and general manner were far worse than his reputation.
"Glenroy, I think. Or Olmen. Either way, you're lucky. Now, give me my cloak and piss off," said Maes and held out his hand expectantly. Khris exchanged cloaks with him and quickly ran across the courtyard, keeping out of sight of the guards.
He had just passed the great hall and was on his way up the stairs to the tower the classroom was located in when he heard a couple of familiar voices.
"…I'm not sure exactly what happened, my prince, but I'm sure he has not gone far…"
"Mefe, you're lucky I'm the one who found you snoring instead of Fabian. If he knew, he'd gone to Father right away and had the Summoner punished severely and you even worse. You know how he reacts to Venoz's little…episodes," said the voice of Prince Glenroy, the king's second-born. Khris' heart calmed down a little. If it was Glenroy, it would be okay. The second-born son, unlike his brother Fabian, actually liked the young Summoner and tried to keep him out of trouble. Not that he was such a saint himself, the eighteen year-old also enjoyed the occasional prank and trip out of the castle.
Khris heard the voices disappear and stepped out into the hallway he had escaped from some hours earlier. The coast was clear, and Khris slowly made his way to the classroom. This particular hallway had a series of alcoves chiselled into the stone walls, and busts of past rulers and Summoners stood on either side of the hallway. Khris had never liked either line of busts, thinking them all to look too severe to have been responsible for the peace that reigned in the kingdom now.
He was just passing the bust of his direct predecessor – High Summoner Miro – when two hands suddenly shot out from behind it and pulled him with them. A hand clamped over his mouth, and he started struggling.
"Be quiet," whispered Prince Olmen, his voice shaking. "Glenroy's really angry with you, and I don't think that smile of yours is going to disarm him this time."
Khris nodded and Olmen let go of his mouth. The bust's base was so large that it was impossible for anyone to see them when they stood behind it. "Why?" asked Khris.
The last-born son of the king sighed. "You don't remember, do you?" he asked. The sixteen year-old looked incredibly worried. His long, black hair, which was usually tied back in a loose ponytail, was hanging loose and spilled over his shoulders. The hair fashion between the three princes was so different that Khris usually had trouble keeping his laughter in whenever they stood beside each other. Where Olmen kept his hair long, Fabian liked to keep it so short it was hardly noticeable, and Glenroy kept his the same length as Khris'.
"What promi—oh no."
The last time Khris had been caught outside of the castle – the infamous time he had thrown up all over Mefe – he had promised Glenroy to never do so again. Of the three brothers, Khris felt more connected with Glenroy than the others, and so did the prince. Khris had sworn on his heart and all that could be sworn on, and he had broken it. No wonder Olmen was worried about Glenroy catching him, since the second-eldest brother had a very firm belief in promises and friendship.
Khris could feel cold sweat on his forehead. Just thinking about how Glenroy would act when he saw Khris again made him feel dizzy and faint. Olmen noticed and put a hand on his shoulder to steady him. "Oh, Olmen," said Khris quietly, "what am I going to do? He'll kill me."
Having seen some of Glenroy's angry tantrums and rants, Olmen couldn't help but imagine his brother doing it. "Don't worry, I'll try to stave him off…don't know how much good it will do, but it doesn't hurt to try, does it?" He finished the sentence with a smile at the younger teen. He looked around the bust's base and saw that the coast was clear. "Okay, I'm reckoning that the classroom is not the best place to suddenly turn up," he said. "Maybe you should just return to your chambers and wait there. I'll go tell Glenroy I found you and try to calm him down."
Khris nodded, still sweating. "Thank you, Olmen, really, I can't—"
The youngest prince waved him off. "Don't worry about that now. Just get to your chambers. Go now."
Khris didn't have to be told twice and ran off in the direction of his chambers. Olmen remained, watching the back of the summoner disappearing behind a corner. He sighed and shook his head. "Huh, Glenroy's going to kill us both."
"I'm starting to have doubts about this," whispered Verg to Minst.
The short man grunted and whispered back. "As I said, this is the best I could do. Take it or leave it."
They were standing in the small storage area of Minst's smithy, a dust-filled little shed that could very well have been a privy before the little, angry man moved in. He had apparently knocked down a wall in order to make more room, but that was about it. Dozens of weapons of every kind littered the shelves, some of designs Verg could only have dreamt of in his nightmares. Who the hell would pay for these things? he thought.
In front of them stood the four people Minst had managed to pull out of his sleeve in order to—wait, there was one missing.
"Wasn't there supposed to be five of us?" asked Verg.
Minst looked up at the scarred man. "Of course, but Maes is still on duty; he will be joining us later."
"Fine, fine," said Verg and observed the others. Phil and Yarik, two heavily muscled men stood next to one of the shelves, deep in conversation about some kind of fighting style or something. Verg didn't care. He knew the two to be trustworthy and serious when it came to jobs. Phil was tall, had extremely broad shoulders and not a single hair on his head. Yarik seemed to be the opposite; short, narrow shoulders and long, blond hair. He also had an extremely flat nose.
Kolm—the assassin, thought Verg with a hint of venom—was leaning against the stone wall, playing with a small throwing-knife. He seemed to be of the average height of a teenager. Verg couldn't guess his exact age, but Kolm looked to be about fourteen-fifteen-sixteen. Somewhere between those three years, at least. It didn't matter, Verg didn't care. He just wanted the murderer and child to stay out of his way and go away when the job was done. What use they would have for an assassin was a mystery as well. In any case, Verg thought it would be best to inscribe his appearance so he would know whether or not it was Kolm the guild sent after him the next time.
The boy was thin, almost skeletal. Verg could see bones poking out here and there wherever he could see naked skin—Kolm had taken off his standard garb and was wearing simple farmer's clothes. Verg had no doubt that the teen had hidden hundreds of weapons on himself, but outwardly he looked like any teenager off the streets. His hair…Verg found it hard to describe to his memory. It was sort of…spiky? In any case, it looked like the assassin-apprentice had just gotten out of bed. It was midnight-black, a colour that was rare around these parts, and his skin was very pale.
Maybe not so strange considering these bastards never go out in the sun and fight fairly, thought Verg and sneered slightly at the teenager. What else to note about this murderer? Maybe his eerie, light-green eyes that seem to glow in the dark? Definitely.
Verg sighed and clapped his hands together. "Okay, listen up! This is what we're going to do…"
To be continued…